How do you manage your inner critic?

“Here is a piece of a troll herb which nobody else but me can find” (Source: Wikimedia)

Before I disappear once more in my teaching trapdoor, I would like to table a big question about the writer’s inner process. In particular the process of writing in the first stages when the germ of a new story must be tended to with utmost care and caution lest it should die an early death.

One of the characteristics of this stage is the confrontation with the “Inner Critic” (for lack of a better term—better term anyone?) who asks all manner of grown-up, sharp, civilized questions and who evidently looks at the beloved germ with the eyes of a gardener rather than a Creator. Clearly, both inner critic and inner creator are needed to complete the work. As Dorothy Brande (“Becoming a Writer”, 1934) pointed out, it’s deadly to have them both in the room at the same time. However, for the practicing writer, they are of course both present at all times.

"Blitzkrieg" and its collapse.

“Blitzkrieg”: the danger of sudden collapse.

While I have encountered this issue with my shorter fiction, it didn’t bother me much then: with all short forms, the Creator can move in and can grow the whole thing comparatively quickly; or, if you prefer military metaphors: the short form knows the successes of “Blitzkrieg”. Of course, that’s not the whole story, but in my experience it is easier with short pieces to lay a strong foundation so that when the inner critic arrives on the scene, he can hardly do too much damage. At least this is my early analysis of the problem.

For longer forms of writing, the long ‘short story’ even, or the novella or (worst of all) the novel, I do not have current have an analysis or recipe; my method currently is to do all my plotting and structuring in English but switch to German when I do my trance work, the actual writing. Somehow, crossing the language barrier disables the inner critic rather effectively.

Gollum! Gollum!

Gollum! Gollum!

Hence my question: how do you manage your inner critic during the first stages of writing (say: during first draft)? Do you deflect the critic? Do you integrate the critic? And how exactly do you do it?

A always, all stories count, all experiences lead to Rome! All artists must jump through similar hoops—perhaps you have a creative idea even if you’re not a writer?


Portrait_of_Henry_James_1913PS. I do not want to withhold the voice of a grand master —though this quote from one of Henry James’ letters concerns external criticism, it also reveals the shape and structure of his INNER stronghold:

«…I know tool perfectly well what I intend, desire and attempt, and am capable of following it absolute absence of perturbation. Never was a genius — if genius there is — more healthy, objective and (I honestly believe) less susceptible of superficial irritations and reactionary impulses. I know what I want — it stares one in the face, as big and round and bright as the full moon; I can’t be diverted or deflected by the sense of judgments that are most of the time no judgments at all.» —Henry James (1878)

James’ central proposition I believe is “I know what I want”. This points at a solid position of thematic, philosophical certainty which over the period of many years of craftsmanship turned into imperviousness against the destructive impulses of critics. I think successfully dealing with the inner critic always comes first and will help you deal with the Outer Critics, too.


[Cross posted at Fictionaut][See also: How to start a novel | What does it mean to be published now]

15 thoughts on “How do you manage your inner critic?

  1. I would use Socrates’ word, “daimonion”. Looking back now, trying to write a new novel, I find it extraordinary that I’ve managed to finish 4 full length books. I wonder if it’s something that creeps up on us as we write more – when we start out we have a certain brashness and fearlessness. The result is that our work lacks the polish that we can bring later in our careers but we do actually get the words out there. As we develop, our expectations of ourselves grow, and I think that’s the real killer – it’s the equivalent of sports men and women getting the yips as they enter their mature phase, because they start overthinking.
    That’s my analysis of the problem. I’ll come back to see if anyone has an answer

    • Hi Dan! You’ll find a number of interesting points of view over at Fictionaut, I believe. I think your idea of bringing in the “daimon” is really good: you may be aware that the Jungian analyst James Hillman built an entire theory using everybody’s ‘daimon’ as an explanation for people’s paths in life. His book “The Soul’s Code” is brilliantly written and has actually helped me at other times to understand myself better.

      I can believe that “overthinking” might become a problem for the mature writer: I wouldn’t know, I have not been seriously at it long enough to say. I’ve also finished a few long texts, but the “brashness and fearlessness” which you mention has rather turned my results into swamplands hard to navigate and hard to understand, I think. I espouse a more controlled approach now — and I can see how over thinking it may become a problem in the long run.

  2. Let our inner critic sit down with Henry James under his big-faced moon and have a little tete-a-tete. That might just distract our critic, or at least render him awe-struck, while we go ahead and write.

    • So want to bring Ol’ Henry back from the dead to deflect the inner censor…as a matter of fact I have done almost the same thing: last week, when I was overrun by an army of ugly inner critical goblins, I read my way through all of Henry James’ New York edition prefaces, which can be read as an expert’s account of battling with his of demons of several decades of writing at the highest level, and it did help (and confuse my inner creator). Love that image of Henry’s “big faced moon”!

  3. My inner critic is most patient during first draft. He either nods his head approvingly up and down or in a sideways no. He’s not looking for fancy technique and nice ornamentation in initial composition. What he wants up front is to be awed by story and structure. While polishing rewrites, he’s just the opposite, a real tyrant when it comes to detail. Of course, at that stage, he utterly hates complete overhauls and will throw a tantrum if I even think about it. Now mind you, it took years of actual critical training and discipline to whip him into shape.

    • Thanks for coming out to play, William. What you describe is exactly what I’m experiencing: given good plot, strong characters and some structure to begin with, the inner critic will hold still during the creation of the first draft proper. Sounds like you’ve found a good balance to do the entire work – very inspiring!

  4. I pour three full glasses of whisky. I drink the first and chant, “I am a writing goddess.” I drink the second and chant, “I’m a writhing goddesh.” Finally I drink the third and chant, “I’b a gosh.” Then I write as fast as I can before I pass out. #queenofunpublishablebooks #true

    • Adopting the masculine version of your chant seems like a really good idea though except that I don’t drink alcohol, alas, and therefore I would miss out on the awesome transformational power of the entire sequence. I feel that the energy really is in the “gosh” part…Sounds somewhat Dorothy-Parker-esque, like an excellent recipe for a writing group…

  5. I just try to trust the process. You have a vague idea of where you’re going, and the journey is what it’s all about.

    • I have years of experience with having “a vague idea” of where I’m going and I’m the world’s greatest journeyman (in fact I come from a long line of journeymen, artisans who were very fond of the way and less concerned about the goal)… however, I find that the particular craft of writing long, hopefully coherent, strong narratives at least for me requires more than a vague idea, almost a plan. Perhaps this is so because I am too easily tempted and distracted by new ideas, new characters and so forth.

  6. I have been tumbling this over in my mind since you posted it, and the answer, for me is (you didn’t ask for recommendations, did you, just experiences?) that sometimes I listen and sometimes I don’t.
    Sometimes the inner critic may tell me that every word I write is useless and I’ll never amount to anything. When it does that it sounds like someone who I don’t like very much, and I swear at it and carry on writing anyway. Sometimes I do write utter drivel, possibly out of spite, but there’ll be something useful in there. And if there isn’t it’s extremely cathartic to chop it out during edits.
    Sometimes, if the critic is telling me I used a cliché or a sloppy choice of words, I might rise to the challenge and polish a sentence, a paragraph or a scene to glittering perfection. And that’s useful too because then when I come back to it these little moments stand out, tempting me back, suggesting promise and satisfaction.
    When I’m editing I usually listen. Because the critic is invited and is generally write. Ignoring it leads to additional revision later on, while he laughs and says ‘I told you so.’
    Mine is male, if you’re interested.

    • Yes Claire, experiences are golden! I’m delighted to hear what a wonderfully engaged, dramatic relationship you afford with your inner critic. I wonder if that’s characteristic for an active, successful writer such as yourself. I do not know what to say about the fact that you say your inner critic is male: perhaps he is your animus, and your creative part is your anima. That would make sense, psychologically speaking, and it would make for the good balance, which you describe, and for the level of control that you exert (alas, I cannot say the same about myself…)

  7. As Claire says above, when my IC is ranting about how useless my work is I try to ignore him, usually by asking just what it is he last wrote. That usually shuts him up. I usually invite my inner critic to the table after the initial note taking stage, well before any writing had begun, so that he can kick any jarring or problematic bits to the kerb rather than have them clutter up the writing. After that I usually bar the doors and leave him shouting through the letterbox while I first draft. The odd change might get heard over the music I use to write to, but for the most part I try to ignore him, only letting him back in the house once the first draft is complete. Then, so long as he keeps the criticism productive rather than abusive I left him stay. If he gets shirty he gets kicked back outside to sit on the naughty step until such time as he is prepared to help rather than hinder.

    • Tough love, Dan! — I find my attempts to order the different responses to one’s inner critic thwarted by the fact that pretty much everyone who answered seems to be engaged more or less successfully in a struggle with the somehow ever present demon. Male writers apparently give the demon more thrashing while female writers engage him, if not flirtatiously, then at least in the course of a dramatically heightened relationship. (This of course may just be my my own inner sexist speaking…) Blissful intoxication that was recommended by one reminds me of the shamanic way of dealing with demons and maybe it’s the reason why so many writers throughout the ages felt that they had to drink themselves into a coma in order to produce at all…

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